Yes, gaming can be good for mental health

19 : 06 : 2018 Gaming : Mental Health : Mental Wellbeing
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With an audience of 2.2–2.6bn, like any mainstream hobby or interest, there is always going to arise a subset who exhibit obsessive behaviour.

Peter Maxwell, foresight writer, LS:N Global

It has been a turbulent week for the gaming community. On 18 June the news broke that The World Health Organization (WHO) now officially recognises gaming as an addictive disorder in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), characterising it by three symptoms:

  • Impaired control over gaming (onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context)
  • Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences

WHO’s diktat means that governments are under pressure to ensure they provide some form of treatment for those debilitatingly addicted to games. This is not, as many global tabloids and news sites have presented the news, confirmation that gaming is a scourge on society, with many contextualising the news alongside schoolchildren’s current predilection for Battle Royale team shooter Fortnite. Rather, it is recognition of gaming’s mainstream reach. It is no longer a niche pursuit, but something enjoyed by everyone from pre-schoolers to retirees. With an estimated audience of between 2.2bn and 2.6bn people, according to the UK Association for Interactive Entertainment, the gaming community is effectively a global one, and within this – like any hobby or interest – there is always going to arise a subset who exhibit obsessive behaviour. ‘Millions of gamers around the world, even when it comes to intense gaming, would never qualify as people suffering from gaming disorder,’ WHO member Dr Vladimir Poznyak tells CNN.

Stories emerging from China’s internet and gaming addiction ‘treatment centres’ describe military-style regimes that bluntly shock gamers into altering their lifestyles.

Positively, the WHO’s classification means that this small subset will probably get more professional input and balanced evaluation of treatments that have, until now, often been dubious in their efficacy and application. Stories emerging from China’s internet and gaming addiction ‘treatment centres’ describe military-style regimes that bluntly shock gamers into altering their lifestyles, with more than one reported case of subjects dying during the process. This reveals what can happen when ignorance about the extent and nature of a human’s dependence on digital media meets naïve concern for its psychological effects.

But there is also a crucial flipside to this debate, and that’s the key role games are playing in expanding our understanding and experience of mental health conditions. At LS:N Global, we’ve long been tracking the rise of games that address mental health, as well as the confluence of digital technology and wellness – two spheres long considered antagonistic.

The WHO’s announcement needs to be contextualised alongside mental wellbeing initiatives for gamers, not just dystopian images of device-fixated children.

Indeed, a wave of gaming titles that explore mental health issues have been released in the past 18 months. One example is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, produced by Ninja Theory, which offers players an insight into the mind of someone suffering from psychosis. Created in collaboration with mental health experts, people who have experienced psychosis, and the Wellcome Trust, the game immerses players in the visual and auditory experience of people suffering from psychosis from the perspective of the protagonist, Senua. ‘I think there is a lot of stigma attached to psychosis and mental health difficulties,’ says Dominic Matthews, product development manager at Ninja Theory. ‘Exposure will ultimately lead to understanding. And the understanding will lead to destigmatisation.’

In my opinion, the WHO’s announcement needs to be contextualised alongside these sorts of initiative as well, not just dystopian images of device-fixated children. Destigmatise gaming’s relationship with mental health first, and – as Matthews points out – we can truly set out on the path to repairing society’s relationship with the subject in general.

For more on how brands can and should be taking a lead on key social issues, read our Morality Recoded macrotrend.